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Spano Should Resign

Unresolved Scandal at the ECtHR

Robert Spano received by President Recep Erdogan on 3 September 2020. Photo: AFP.

The official visit by ECtHR President Robert Spano to Turkey was a scandal...

Almost six months have passed since a big scandal erupted at the European Court of Human Rights, involving the Italian-Icelandic judge who is its President, Robert Spano. I have been waiting for some reactions to this scandal, such as Spano’s resignation, or at least his apology. But the silence surrounding this strange case is truly deafening.

The scandal was that Spano as ECtHR President paid an official visit to Turkey on 3–5 September 2020, accepting an honorary doctorate at Istanbul University, giving lectures to audiences where students were not admitted, posing with President Erdogan in a photo, and visiting a small town in Southeast Turkey, Mardin, where he socialised with officials imposed by Erdogan in place of democratically elected representatives.

Spano is as well aware as everybody else that since an attempted coup in 2016, Turkey has become increasingly autocratic. Istanbul University where he accepted his honorary degree has expelled more than two hundred academics at the request of the regime. One of them, Mehmet Altan, wrote in an open letter to Spano: ‘I heard on television that I had been dismissed from the university through a statutory decree on 29 October 2016, while I was in my cell in prison, a month after I was detained as a result of the violation of three articles of the constitution. The people who will be giving you an honorary doctorate are the very people who dismissed me and many other academics.’ Altan was eventually acquitted of all charges, but not allowed to return to his university post.

The judiciary has suffered no less than the academy. Just one day after the coup attempt some 3,000 judges and prosecutors were arrested and subsequently detained. The Turkish Constitutional Court found no fault with those harsh measures. It also expelled two of its own members without any evidence of wrongdoing. Moreover, the TCC has ruled that it is ‘much better situated’ than the ECtHR to interpret national law.

Perhaps the most bizarre part of Spano’s Turkish excursion was when he went to Mardin, a small town in Southeast Turkey, apparently on the invitation of a newly-appointed fellow judge from Turkey, Ms. Saadet Yüksel. Her family is powerful in the region and Spano visited a high school which it had financed, and also saw the Mayor of the city, Mahmut Demirtaş. ‘It is evident from Spano’s lectures that he has developed a close friendship with Yüksel – so much so that he seems to have let Judge Yüksel determine the agenda of his entire trip,’ a Turkish legal scholar, Dr. Dilek Kurban, comments. ‘Is it ethical for the ECtHR President to conduct private visits during an official visit? More significantly, however, why did he meet with several representatives of the ruling political party when he did not get together with a single representative of any of the opposition parties in Turkey?’

Demirtaş had replaced a democratically elected Mayor, the respected Kurdish leader Ahmet Türk, who had been summarily dismissed by Erdogan. Türk is a member of the People’s Democratic Party, HDP, which is in opposition. Kurban remarks: ‘By meeting and posing with Demirtaş, Spano not only effectively endorsed the unconstitutional executive takeover of a democratically elected office, but also sent an extremely worrisome message to former HDP mayors whose cases are either pending before the ECtHR or will soon arrive there.’

Of course Spano could defend himself by saying that it is better to reason with autocrats than just to condemn them. Sometimes such a defence makes sense. In his lectures in Turkey, Spano certainly said a few nice words about the importance of the rule of law. But in his official visit, the ECtHR President went much further than he needed to do, probably under the influence of his friend and fellow judge Yüksel. He showed a singular lack of tact and judgement. He should either resign, as many have demanded, or issue an apology. I find it strange that the Icelandic government—which nominated Spano—has remained silent on this embarrassing incident while distinguished Icelanders like the former Supreme Court Judge Jon Steinar Gunnlaugsson, former Foreign Minister (and former Leader of the Social Democrats) Ingibjorg S. Gisladottir and former justice ministers Ogmundur Jonasson (from the Left Green Party) and Bjorn Bjarnason (from the centre-right Independence Party) all have strongly condemned Spano’s behaviour.